Are these John Wilkes Booth's field glasses?

By Deborah Warner, NMAH
A pair of black and dark green field glasses

Curator Deborah Warner's research on a valuable accessory may reveal a connection to President Abraham Lincoln's assassin. 

This intriguing object is the subject of much curatorial research
This intriguing object is the subject of much curatorial research

Binocular field glasses were introduced in Vienna, Austria, around 1840 and soon caught the attention of those who would see things from afar. Although binocular opera glasses had been used since the 17th century, field glasses were a new style of large, rugged, and powerful binoculars designed for heavy duty use. Some military officers used field glasses in the Crimean War of the 1850s, and many officers used them to great advantage in the American Civil War of the 1860s.

The actor John Wilkes Booth cared enough about his field glasses to ensure that they were stashed at a place where he could pick them up as he fled south from Washington after having shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. While we do not know what became of Booth's field glasses, we have recently noticed that some field glasses in the Medical Sciences Collections of the National Museum of American History match contemporary accounts of that historic item.

The National Police Gazette detailed the events of Lincoln’s assassination, NMAH-2000-7931
The National Police Gazette detailed the events of Lincoln’s assassination

Our information about Booth's field glasses comes largely from John Lloyd, manager of the Surratt Tavern, a public house that was owned by Mary Surratt, keeper of a boarding house in Washington, D.C. A few hours before the assassination, Booth gave Surratt a package and told her to take it to Lloyd at the Tavern, some nine miles south of the Capitol. He also told Surratt to tell Lloyd to give the package—plus some whiskey, as well as the carbines and ammunition that had been taken to the tavern a few days earlier—"to whoever should call for them that night."

Carte de visite of John Wilkes Booth
Carte de visite of John Wilkes Booth. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.80.214.

Lloyd opened the package and found that it contained field glasses. Later that evening, he gave these glasses, a carbine, and some whiskey, to David Herold, Booth's companion on his flight from Washington. Booth, having broken a leg jumping from the presidential box onto the stage of Ford's Theatre, remained on his horse and in the shadows, but he did tell Lloyd what he had done. Lloyd related his account when called as witness on May 13, 1865, on the first day of the military trial of Mary Surratt and other people accused of having conspired in the fatal deed. (Four of the asssassins were executed by hanging on July 7, 1865.)

Booth's field glasses came up again in 1867, in the civil trial of Mary's Surratt's son John, a Southern sympathizer who had fled to Canada after the assassination. The transcript of the trial helps us appreciate the distinctiveness of the field glasses as well as the sloppiness of the proceedings. Lloyd, once again, told how Mary Surratt had brought the field glasses to him, and how he had given them to Herold. Edward Townsend, an assistant adjutant general of the Army, brought some field glass into the court room, implying that they had belonged to Booth. When recalled as a witness and asked if he recognized these field glasses, Lloyd's answer was hardly what the prosecutor expected: "It is my impression that this is not the kind of a one that I saw. That one was made something like this, but just on top in the centre here was printed, in larger letters than these are, 'field glass.'"

Prodded by the prosecutor, Lloyd relented somewhat, saying "This resembles it very much. It was such a make as this. It was a double glass."

When the prosecutor asked Lloyd to "turn that little screw there and tell us what you see then," Lloyd replied "theatre," "field," "marine." He said nothing about a signature or maker's mark of any kind.

The field glasses from another angle. The blue arrow indicates where the word "theatre" is visible.
The field glasses from another angle. The blue arrow indicates where the word "theatre" is visible.

Everton Conger, a soldier in the party that had found Booth hiding in a barn on Richard Garrett's farm in Caroline County, Virginia, testified that he never saw the field glass until he went to the War Department to get it, in preparation for the trial. John W. Garrett would not swear that the field glasses in question had belonged to Booth, but eventually admitted having seen "similar" glasses "at my father's house, in Booth's possession." Luther Byron Baker, the detective who brought the field glasses from Virginia to Washington, testified in one place that he saw them "at the Garrett place, where Booth was captured," and in another that he and Mr. Garrett found them "about nine miles from Garrett's place," at the home of people who may have been their relatives.

According to a later account written by Lucinda Holloway, a Garrett sister-in-law who was at the farm when Booth was captured, it was she who saw some "opera glasses" on a book case in the house, and concluded that they must have belonged to Booth. When Garrett said, "Take them out of my sight. I do not wish to see anything that will remind me of this dreadful [affair]," she asked her brother to take them to their mother's house. And it was there that they were found by "Jack" Garrett and Lt. Baker.

Like the field glasses brought into court in 1867, the museum example carries no indication of the firm that made or sold them. And they have a knurled knob near the eye end that, when rotated, changes the focus from "Theatre" to "Field" to "Marine." The language here suggests that the glasses were made in England (there was no American optical instrument industry at that time) or for an English-speaking customer. French examples are marked "Campagne" rather than "Field."

Used by Ulysses S. Grant, these field glasses are also in the museum's collection NMAH-2002-3867-10
Used by Ulysses S. Grant, these field glasses are also in the museum's collection

While the origin of adjustable field glasses of this sort is yet unknown, trade literature in the Smithsonian Libraries indicates that Chevalier, an important optical house in Paris, offered "Jumelles Multiples. A trois effets" (complex binocular glasses with three settings) in 1860. And while field glasses of this sort have not survived in great profusion, examples made by such other Paris firms as Colmont and Lemaire can be found.

Deborah Warner is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science. She has previously blogged about a lesser-known Benjamin Franklin invention and the friendship between Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Priestly.